Who is the “customer” per ISO 17025 and why is it important

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In a series of posts, I am going to introduce the reader to the existence of ISO 17025 and its importance.  I am going to introduce it in bite-sized bits for easy digestion.  Just like all matters of learning, knowledge is incremental over time and builds upon previous exposure.

In our first post we answered the question:  What is ISO 17025?

The next post we answered the question:  Why do we need standards? Why ISO 17025 and policy, procedures and instructions matter.

Then we answered the question:  Why is ISO 17025 so important to us in forensic science?

Just two days ago, we asked and answered:  Why should the criminal defense community care about ISO 17025?

A little while ago we examined how ISO 17025 provides a simple method to develop themes to cross-examine experts.

Just a few days ago, we had a post concerning how ISO 17025 can be used by the criminal law practitioner to help get his discovery.

Most recently we explored how ISO 17025 can answer the question over who is the actual analyst.

Today is the controversial topic of: Who is the “customer” per ISO 17025 and why is it important.

Who the "customer" is defined as being is crucial for ISO 17025 labs
Who the "customer" is defined as being is crucial for ISO 17025 labs

It is important to appreciate that per 1.3 “Notes” are not requirements, but they do provide important clarification of the text and guidance for achieving best practices.

Per Section 4.7.1 note 1, a laboratory under ISO 17025 should provide the customer’s representative reasonable access to the relevant areas of the laboratory for the witnessing of test and/or calibrations performed for the customer.

This may be a way for the criminal defense practitioner to seek to have an independent certified qualified laboratory auditor inspect a laboratory.

For the criminal practitioner, one of the major improvements between the ASCLD/LAB Legacy program and ISO 17025 is Section 4.7 (Service to the customer). This Section in conjunction with Section 4.8 and 4.10[i] is where the criminal practitioner can have meaningful potential impact into the occasion where a state expert witness or laboratory analyst testifies falsely or in a less than scientifically honest way in the courtroom.

Section 4.7 (Service to the customer) and specifically 4.7.2 provides a requirement wherein the laboratory must seek feedback from the “customer.” This means actively seeking comment rather than a passive collection of comments.

In ASCLD/LAB interpretation of ISO 17025 (ASCLD/LAB International), the criminal defense practitioner and the accused are labeled as tertiary customers. This is not without controversy. It is wondered by this blogger why the accused and the criminal defense lawyer are demoted to such a low level of input if the testing is supposed to be conducted by a neutral lab. y promoting the prosecution to a primary customer, then this cannot be fairly termed as neutral.

As a tertiary customer in the ASCLD/LAB interpretation of ISO 17025, the  voice of the criminal law practitioner will not be as strong as that of a secondary or primary customer under the schematic.

Nevertheless, Section 4.8 surrounds complaints. There must be both a policy and a procedure in place as to how to collect, evaluate and address complaints from “customers” and other parties. It should include some sort of method of testimony monitoring whereby supervisors or a defined person monitors the testimony either by reviewing the written transcripts and/or live courtroom testimony. In combination with Section 4.7.2 as discussed infra, it is through this mechanism of seeking input and complaints that even the criminal law practitioner can create a record of identifying, reporting and most importantly documenting false or inconsistent testimony. These created documents  should constitute Brady-like material that is required to be turned over by the prosecution.

If the criminal defense community uses this framework, they can finally have feedback into the analyst who seemingly says one thing on Tuesday just to say something different on Wednesday.

Hypocrites can be documented and exposed in forensic science
Hypocrites can be documented and exposed in forensic science

In addition, this mechanism of ISO 17025, if properly implemented, should end the current deplorable practice wherein a laboratory plays the well-known “game” of frequently renaming whatever error or complaint reporting system, if it had one, so as to not be required to disclose to the defense this record of individual or systemic error despite the fact that it may be exculpatory.

Again, this situation will be less likely to occur provided that there is human integrity and honesty in a laboratory through this schema of ISO 17025 as Sections 4.9 (Control of nonconforming testing and/or calibration work), 4.10 (Improvement), 4.11 (Corrective action), and 4.12 (Preventive action) provide a uniform structure for us to request and obtain documents and reports when the laboratory or an analyst does wrong.

An actual complaint mechanism that works
An actual complaint mechanism that works

In addition, whereas before some laboratories played “hide the ball” with control charts or the reporting and correction of internal error or deviations from their existing SOPs (old nomenclature) by a particular analyst, this no longer can be done per ISO 17025.

[i] ASCLD/LAB adopts a position that we, as criminal law practitioners, are tertiary “customers”.  We should strongly contest this position and reject their narrow definition of “customer.” The importance of the definition of “customer” is manifest. ASCLD/LAB takes the position that the “customer” is the prosecuting agency as well as the prosecuting authority. It is the authors’ position and one that is shared by other scientists that the “customer” is the trier of fact. ASCLD/LAB argues and presents that the trier of fact is only a secondary “customer.” The distinction here is important in that some of the power of the basic philosophy unpinning ISO 17025 includes “customer” specific relevance in reporting. The basic schematic of ISO 17025 is plan, then do, then check, then act. It is this last component of act that is due to the feedback of the defined “customer”. Obviously, with recommendation number 4 of the National Research Council’s 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, entitled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States:  A Path Forward”, one of the major criticisms of the practice of forensic science in America today is the lack of meaningful independence between the crime lab and prosecution agencies. It seems as if ASCLD/LAB in its interpretation of “customer” is seeking not to implement this important admonition by the National Research Council and the NAS.

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